IF ANYTHING WAS MORE UNEXPECTED than Zinédine Zidane head-butting an Italian defender during Sunday’s World Cup final, it was the reception the red-carded star received the next day at a dinner honoring the French team for being runners-up.

“Dear Zinédine Zidane,” purred President Jacques Chirac. “What I want to express at perhaps the most intense and difficult moment of your career, is the admiration and affection of the entire nation — and its respect too. You are a virtuoso, a genius of world football and also a man of heart, of commitment and conviction. That is why France admires and loves you.”

Wow. Just try to picture Dubya honoring any team that didn’t win, let alone praising LeBron James if he’d blown Olympic gold by cold-cocking some Serb in O.T.

Now, this being Chirac, such a plummy encomium was not without its political dimension. Not only had Zidane endorsed Chirac’s presidential bid over racist xenophobe Jean-Marie Le Pen — not a hard call for the son of Algerian immigrants — but given France’s racial turmoil, any shrewd leader would offer a healing embrace to the country’s most admired symbol of multicultural hope. But the president’s praise for Zidane also tapped into something at the heart of the nation’s culture. The French understand — and therefore forgive — the artistic temperament.

Zidane is, as Chirac said, a virtuoso. Not merely an artiste du ballon, a really good player, but an athletic genius who possesses the gift that soccer fans worship the most. In a fluid team sport that deliberately makes its ball hard to control, Zidane can control a whole game with his soft touch, wide vision and uncanny precognitive sense of the action — he passes the ball to open spaces before they appear. Although he wasn’t this World Cup’s best player (that was the impregnable defender Fabio Cannavaro), he won the Golden Bowl by playing the most beautiful game. Zidane became the cup’s big story, not least here in America, where ESPN and ABC desperately needed somebody to market once the U.S. team bombed out. Who better than a superstar who was not only retiring (ah, manufactured nostalgia) but had that shaved pate and eagle’s beak that made him so easy to spot on TV.

Decades from now, the 2006 World Cup will be remembered (outside Italy, anyway) as the year of Zidane’s noggin. It was his heady play that pushed France into the finals. It was his scorching header in overtime that would’ve deservedly won France the game had Italy’s goalkeeper Buffon not made a great save that prompted Zidane to bellow with fury. And, of course, it was that famous head — bashing the chest of Marco Materazzi — that got him ejected, perhaps costing his team the cup. Even now, people are talking about Zidane’s head — and what could possibly have been going through it to make him attack Materazzi.

“What will we tell our children?” read a plaintive headline in the sports paper L’Equipe, whose grown-up writers predictably disguised their own disillusioned hero worship by pretending to worry about the kids. “How could this happen to a man like you?”

One can imagine the vast army of French intellectuals, who famously love Les Bleus, spending the next few years trying to answer that very question in articles, essays, maybe even books — Bring Me the Head of Zinédine Zidane! And why not? Sartre spent years anatomizing Gustave Flaubert in his huge, crazy book The Family Idiot, and that enterprise had the advantage that its subject was a born verbalizer who left behind hundreds of thousands of words for Jean-Paul to play with. Not so the enigmatic Zidane, a private, laconic fellow who didn’t hurry to reveal what Materazzi said to him that triggered the assault. Did the guy insult his mother? Make another of the racial slurs (“dirty terrorist”) that are a disgusting feature of European football? Even so, Zidane has surely been hearing such crap all his life.

Of course, he has never been the anodyne commercial icon that the media so badly want him to be — a cool football style does not imply a cool character. Bemoaning the attack, a sportswriter for London’s Independent insisted, “It felt like an unholy denial of everything he represents.” Everything he represents? Zidane has pulled similar stunts before — stomping a Saudi during the ’98 World Cup, head-butting a Hamburg player during a Champions League match. He is a man, not a god.

He let himself become prey to the cup final’s frustrations — exhaustion, an injured shoulder, his cascading annoyance with all the chippy not-quite-fouls at which the Italians are the world’s acknowledged masters. Add to that Zidane’s bitter disappointment at Buffon’s save, which kept his final game from the storybook ending that he, like so many people, had probably grown to expect. All this was doubtless intensified by the rich sense of entitlement that every superstar wears like an Armani protective shield. Just as Kobe starts freaking out when he sometimes doesn’t get calls that nobody else on the court would ever get, so Zidane spent too much of Sunday’s final on the turf demanding the ref’s whistle.

This entitlement was born of a world-class artistry that has made him the footballing equivalent of a Degas or Camus (although he’s vastly more popular than either). It’s the nature of such genius that it makes its own rules, and not always pleasantly: The Frank Sinatra who could break your heart with a love song could also break a woman’s jaw by smacking her with a telephone. This doesn’t excuse Zidane’s stupid violence, but it helps explain why, under all the pressure of a cup final that would end his career, such a brilliant player might irrationally lash out at a thug like Materazzi, who has spent a whole career trying to turn soccer’s poetry into prose.

Then, too, you can’t fully understand that red card without thinking about Zidane’s impoverished childhood in the Marseilles projects, which taught him, he once said, “the desire to never stop fighting.” You can only imagine the pent-up rage that he must still carry with him in a France that still flagrantly discriminates against minorities while turning famous ones like himself into symbols of a specious égalité. Like so many pro athletes, a staggering percentage of whom come from the world’s vast underclass, he’s channeled his anger into the socially accepted outlet of sports that eludes many of its disenfranchised fans. (When Zidane unleashed that head-butt, he seemed less like a player than a soccer hooligan.) One should never be surprised when, in the heat of competition, that anger escapes its channel, and deeply ingrained ideas of street honor take over. What’s startling is that it happens so seldom.

Yet even knowing all this, we still don’t really know why, at precisely this moment, this particular man cracked, forever tarnishing a legacy he spent two decades creating. And I’d wager that even Zidane, clearly a man of powerful instincts, couldn’t really tell us what shattered his self-restraint. The great riddle of the psyche doesn’t betray its secrets so easily. Even after Zidane’s whole life has been analyzed in microscopic detail — I can’t wait for Bernard-Henri Lévy’s grand tour of his skull — his attack on Materazzi will remain as mysterious as his ability to see things on a soccer pitch invisible to everyone else.

Who’s the Demagogue?

America’s major media outlets routinely demonize Latin American populists who oppose neoliberal techno­­crats. The Los Angeles Times editorial page outdid itself on July 4 when, continuing its relentless hostility toward Mexico’s left-wing presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, it claimed that his postelection behavior proved him a demagogue. How? “A few hours after the polls closed and moments after independent electoral authorities announced that the race was too close to call, the leftist former mayor of Mexico City took to the airwaves to declare himself the winner, by half a million votes. He urged election officials to ‘confirm our results’ and pledged, menacingly, to protect the people’s verdict.”

Of course, there are those of us who wish Al Gore had been half this assertive back in 2000. Leaving that aside, what the editorial didn’t tell readers was that (as the Times itself reported) it wasn’t actually López Obrador who first broke the electoral authorities’ request for silence. It was the campaign manager of his main rival, PAN’s Felipe Calderón, who tried to spin things by telling a TV news conference that exit polls showed his man winning. López Obrador was playing defense.

The editorial also failed to mention that López Obrador (who’d been cheated in the 1994 Tabasco state governor’s race by the then-ruling PRI) was right to be suspicious. After his first complaints, the electoral authorities suddenly discovered 3 million missing ballots, and though these weren’t finally enough to give him official victory, the method of counting seemed, shall we say, a little fishy. When the new votes were found, López Obrador suddenly surged into the lead. But for some reason, the results from Calderón’s strong areas didn’t come in until the eleventh hour, and — miracle of miracles — there were just enough votes to let the conservative PAN candidate be named the winner after all. On July 8, López Obrador’s supporters held a huge rally to demand a nationwide, vote-by-vote recount of this troubled, neck-and-neck election. Does the Times take this as further proof that he’s antidemocratic?

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